Political careers can be made or broken by how candidates handle major crises. During the March madness, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama soared above one crisis while his rival Sen. Hillary Clinton appeared to sink beneath hers. The contrast could turn out to mark the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party's primary.
On March 18, Obama delivered a brilliant speech on the role of race in modern America in response to the inflammatory, antinational and racist remarks of his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright. He thereby elevated the discourse to a higher level by successfully changing the conversation. But the potential for long-term damage to his candidacy remains.
Wright's sermons negate Obama's central message of hope, optimism, unity and reconciliation. Having first claimed not to have heard the raging sermons, Obama quietly let slip that he had indeed heard some of those statements. They undermine his claim to judgment in his choice of pastor and failure to walk out. Clinton is right to point to the fallacy of the comparison with his white grandmother: You cannot choose one, you can the other. Having worked assiduously to position himself as the first postracial candidate, Obama risks being boxed in as a black candidate.
Wright's sermons neutralize one of Obama's strongest advantages over Clinton. Her surname is so toxic among Republicans that her candidacy would rally the Republican base. The Wright videos will have the same effect with Obama. They are certain to be used extensively by the Republicans to raise money and get out the vote in November. Most importantly, they reinforce the central Clinton charge against Obama, that he is too unknown to trust putting the nation's security and welfare in his hands.
The Clinton campaign had gained traction by employing a two-step strategy straight out of the Karl Rove textbook that was married to a vintage Clinton ploy. She took Obama's biggest strength--his eloquence--and relentlessly attacked it as a weakness: "He gives empty speeches: I offer real solutions."
She also converted her most enduring weakness--willingness to say and do anything to win--into a major campaign strength: Tough enough to take on and beat the Republicans and be ready to walk back into the Oval Office on day one.
Entrapped by his own narrative of being above old-style attack politics, Obama allowed Clinton to define their respective political personas. If he retaliated to the insults, Clinton feigned injured innocence and appealed to supporters for more funds.
It required a vintage scandal to bring Clinton's enduring negatives to the fore. Her claims to 35 years of executive-level experience were spurious and fanciful. A pliant and easily intimidated press failed its duty of due diligence in investigating her claims. But then she got caught out on video in a bald-faced lie of breathtaking audacity-cum-stupidity. She had claimed, repeatedly, in the presence of cameras, and in gripping vivid detail, that she had gone to Bosnia in 1996 under highly dangerous circumstances, been subjected to sniper fire, and ducked and ran for cover on arrival at Tuzla Airport.
This was never a credible story: Then President Bill Clinton would not have sent his wife and teenage daughter on a visit too dangerous for him. The dates were easily cross-checked: she went a year after the peace agreement. The contemporary media accounts were easily available and remarkably silent on this dramatic adventure. Then video footage turned up, showing conclusively that the whole account was a figment of her overactive imagination. Confronted with the evidence, Clinton shrugged, said she had misspoken, was merely human, no big deal, and can we now return instead to the subject of Obama's pastor and make this into a racially charged campaign?
Only the Clintons have the chutzpah to carry on in public when caught out to an acutely embarrassing degree that would send most ordinary folks into shamefaced hiding for months. Astonishingly, she still seems to have a blindly loyal following that is not fazed by the thought of electing a president who has been proven on film to be a serial liar.
But the nonreaction is not universal. Many are no longer able to continue with the denial of Clinton's character and campaign tactics, nor forgive parents who would require their 28-year-old daughter to back up her mother in a public lie.
The debacle strongly reinforces the powerfully negative images of both Bill and Hillary Clinton--ruthless in their lust for power, willing and able to lie to the people on camera without shame, and with a history of deceit, evasions and thuggish behavior toward political opponents.
The bursting of the female James Bond persona in Bosnia brought back memories of the famous New York Times column by William Safire in 1996 that labeled Hillary Clinton a congenital liar based on evasions on remarkable profits on commodity trading, firing of White House travel aides and the suicide of White House lawyer Vincent Foster. She also has claimed her daughter was jogging in the vicinity of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 (Chelsea watched their destruction on TV); she had always opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement when the reluctantly released White House records prove she lobbied actively for it; she was named after Edmund Hilary, except he climbed Mt. Everest five years after her birth; she played an instrumental role in Northern Ireland without which we may never had a peace agreement--dismissed as "a wee bit silly" by David Trimble, cowinner of the Nobel Peace Prize for that event.
It recalls her habit of nondisclosures and raises further questions about what she might be hiding in past tax returns and donor lists.
Most worryingly for any politician, Clinton has entered the laughter and mockery zone. For example, blaming her "misspeaking" about Bosnia on sleep-deprivation invited ridicule about being able to handle a major crisis at 3 a.m. Speaking the truth is now called "mislying." Her positive rating has plummeted to 37 percent while her negative rating has climbed to 48 percent (compared to Obama's 49-32). He has moved ahead in national polls and is closing the gap in Pennsylvania, which votes on April 22, since the Bosnia falsehood was so dramatically and hilariously exposed.
Evidence of internal damage to the Democratic Party is mounting. Fearful of the damage to their prospects in November if the civil war of attrition continues, and based on the delegate count and the small number of primary contests remaining, calls are growing for Clinton to concede and withdraw.
He is ahead by 162 pledged delegates (132 if superdelegates are included), by 13.6 million-12.9 million votes, and in opinion polls. She insists she will fight on to victory. She may really believe that Obama will be a disaster against McCain; that he is not ready to be president, whereas she is (the Rosa Parks syndrome: He should sit at the back of the bus). Or she wants to destroy him as a viable candidate so that following one McCain term, she returns as nominee and president in 2012. Or, if she doesn't get the nomination, she wants to ensure his defeat. The last is called the Tonya Harding option after the U.S. Olympic ice skater who literally had Nancy Kerrigan, her rival for gold, kneecapped by a hired thug 14 years ago.
Regardless, Obama should thank Clinton for improving his debating skills, sharpening his political agility, honing his counterattacking skills, and toughening his campaign resilience. The race with her is over; he will need the hard-earned skills for the real race.